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M.C. Escher Techniques

The technique of making block prints is almost a lost art. Escher's original block prints were created mostly in four mediums, woodcut (wood block), linocut (linoleum block), mezzotint (copper plate), and lithograph (stone block with image drawn onto it). 

       Printmaking is a laborious process.  First, Escher started with  an idea.  Then, he transformed the thought into a drawing, in the case of the print Knots, there were over 70 preparatory sketches.

        Escher transferred a mirror image of the final sketch onto a smooth woodblock by using tracing paper. Then he meticulously carved away anything that he didn't want to print.  He needed a separate block for each color in the final print.  The block for Horses and Birds is seen to the right - a large hole has been drilled into it to prevent posthumous printings.  Talcum powder has been placed onto the block to highlight the cut grooves.

        Escher only needed to ink the block and press it onto paper for black and white wood engravings.  However, for multi-colored prints, he needed a separate block for each color and a registration system to print them.   The print "Sun and Moon" (pictured right lower)  required four blocks.  Here the first three blocks, red, yellow, and blue, have been printed.  The black is always the final block. The blue block is pictured to the right. Escher sometimes changed up the colors and in the lowest work used gold instead of yellow and a paler blue with a sharp red. 

        Escher also made lithographs, which involve drawing an image onto a stone block and then printing from the stone.  And, he made eight mezzotints.  A mezzotint is created by etching an image into a smooth copper plate and then printing from the copper plate.  Eye, one of his most famous images, is a mezzotint print.

        During his life Escher made only 448 master works.  He never had an apprentice, and therefore, printed all of his own woodcuts.  Many of the larger pieces are annotated "eigen druk," which loosely means "by my own pressure (hand)."

        Escher printed his own woodblocks and mezzotints.  He had professionals print his lithographs.  An original print was any that was made only from the block he carved.

    Every print was made in a limited edition.  Some of the more popular lithographs and woodcuts had a few hundred prints made.  He often printed woodcuts to order rather than a planned edition size.  He did document how many he sold and it turns out many of his works were printed less than thirty times.  Even famous lithographs, such as Drawing Hands, are in small numbers because Escher would polish the design out of the stone to create a new lithograph in its place.  For better or worse, this prevented him from making additional prints when his popularity increased near the end of his life.

    The value of art comes from the thrill of owning a work actually created by the artist's own hands.  If this were not true, Picasso posters would sell for the same price as originals.  The same is true with Escher.  M.C. Escher was very protective of his work.  He did not issue posters or reprints with rare exception.  In fact, he even declined a commission from the Rolling Stones to create an album cover for them.  He refused to sell-out, sacrificing monetary gain for dignity.

    Unlike other artists, Escher did not have an apprentice printing for him.  Many of his woodcut he annotated with “eigendruk” to denote that the work was printed by his own hand. He signed and numbered his own lithographs and mezzotints.  Some other famous artists have signed posters, or had other people make lithographs from their paintings.  In fact, some artists have "posthumous prints" based on their art, created by other artists, and signed by family members so that the 'autograph' last name is the same!!!

    To ensure that "originals" weren't made after his death, his lithograph stones, mezzotint plates, and wood engraving blocks were irreversibly marred.   

    Taken together, this means an original Escher artwork is the print.  There isn't a painting of any of Escher's works that serves as the original the way we are used to seeing lithographs of Salvador Dali's paintings (Such as Lincoln in Dalivision).  The block is the source, the print is the original work. Some blocks have detailed preparatory drawing, such as Three Worlds, and in other cases just the block exists. Lastly, all prints were created during Escher's life with many printed by his hand, rather than a press. When you own an original Escher block print, you own something he created during his life. You own something to cherish!


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